The opening scene: A young man has just passed his law exams. He visits the dimly lit offices of a hulking, stern man. He stabs a knife into the desktop. He tells this man of his success, in a tone that dares the other man to speak. The man at the desk ignores him. The young man shouts at him, telling him that he can no longer ruin his life, that the older man's power over him is gone. The older man stands and extends his hand in congratulations, saying that he has always helped the younger man. The younger man leaves, then thunders back in, diving over the desk. We next see him leaving the office, his face covered in blood. In the next scene, police raid his house and arrest him for the old man's murder. This film is the story of how he came to be in that office, and why he claims not to have killed the older man with the knife.
Dreverhaven is an evil bailiff. I mean evil. His evil is fired with a passion for his work that gives him the intestinal fortitude to face down raging mobs and dive into rivers in the pursuit of his duty, which is to evict the poor from their homes. His servant is Joba, a taciturn woman. One night, after hardly speaking to her for years, he rapes her. She gets pregnant, quits his service, and spends the next few years refusing his wedding proposals. Her son grows up not knowing his father. A chance encounter tells him that Dreverhaven is his father, but also leads to his lifelong hatred of the man.
Jacob thinks he is haunted by his cursed father, and for good reason. He borrows money to buy a shop, goes bankrupt, and finds that Dreverhaven owns the bank. He gets a job at a law office, and finds out Dreverhaven is friends with the lawyers.
Dreverhaven is Dickens' Magwitch, without the consideration to stay behind the shadows. He is a dour, miserable man, and he thinks he's doing the kid a favor, making him stronger. He is only partly right that Jacob owes his continuing success to his hatred of his father.
The film is quite dour itself, shot in dimly lit buildings and alleys. The striking use of shadow to illustrate Dreverhaven's menace turns the older man into an almost supernaturally evil force. Van Huet, who plays Jacob, has a certain Peter Lorre quality, which accentuated his somewhat slimy-feeling eagerness to succeed in spite of his father.
I probably would have given the film a higher rating but for an unnecessarily ambiguous ending. I don't know why movies have to muck up perfectly good endings by suddenly casting doubt on things, especially the way this one did (I don't want to give it away, otherwise I would complain more specifically). Of course, the ending was probably in the novel, so I shouldn't complain too much about the film's version, unless they added it.
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